Skip to main content Skip to main content

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Becoming Visible

View Transcript

Ethnic Writers and the Literary Mainstream, 1945-1969

This episode guides the viewer through the works and contexts of ethnic writers from 1945-1965. Starting with the works of Ralph Waldo Ellison, Philip Roth, and N. Scott Momaday, we explore the way writers from the margins took over the center of American culture.

Instructor Overview

In the folk memory of the twenty-first century, the 1950s are recalled as a decade of bland conservatism and imaginative complacency in the United States. Television came of age in the 1950s, and it proclaimed that suburban ranch houses, station wagons, “Father Knows Best,” and “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” were the icons and obsessions of postwar America. An investigation of newspapers, however, or a sampling of the literary and intellectual life of the 1950s will demonstrate that there was no shortage of vitality, independent thought, and moral uncertainty during this time in American history. As the severe housing shortage after World War II gave way to suburban sprawl and interstate highways, the dynamics of ordinary life were radically reinvented. Women who had worked in the defense industries and who remembered the scarcity and hardship of the 1930s and 1940s now faced the heady challenges of prosperity and conflicting social values. Propelled by the G.I. Bill, the vast expansion of the American college and university system brought higher education to millions of people from ordinary backgrounds-yet life after college did not always reflect the possibilities that had opened up to these bright and hopeful undergraduates. Women with college degrees, for instance, still faced an economic and social system that regarded them as aspiring housewives.

The G.I. Bill also changed the bloodlines of American thought. By the mid-1950s, the dominion of the New England Ivy League Brahmin with an Anglo-Saxon pedigree had ended, and the arts and intellectual life were energized by people with names and faces that Henry Adams and T. S. Eliot would have thought strange indeed. Many of the emerging authors, including Lionel Trilling, Ralph Ellison, Bernard Malamud, Gwendolyn Brooks, Delmore Schwartz, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Paule Marshall, Grace Paley, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow, did not come from families that would have made the “Blue Book” of any prewar American social hierarchy.

Unit 14, “Becoming Visible,” provides background and classroom materials on Baldwin, Bel-low, Ellison, Arthur Miller, Roth, Paley, Malamud, Marshall, N. Scott Momaday, Richard Wright, and Brooks. The video for Unit 14 focuses on three of these authors and explores how writers from this period responded to the challenge of being American in a decade of Cold War, material comfort, moral anxiety, and deep concern about the place of independent thinkers and ethnic minorities within the United States. Ellison, Roth, and Momaday are known for their “novels of identity,” works that relate a long adventure of growing up and achieving a self. Their heroes and journeys are sometimes emblematic of the aspirations and crises of people who had not previously figured so powerfully in the American imagination. Bellow, Malamud, and Miller also became famous as contributors to this expanded American mythology.

The video and curriculum materials for Unit 14 pay special attention to the mingling of American traditions in the works under discussion. Invisible Man draws heavily on jazz, blues, and African American culture, as well as on the literary traditions of James Joyce, Mark Twain, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, and Thomas Mann. In Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth echoes the Anglo-Saxon nostalgia of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, as well as the exuberance of yiddishkeit, the folk culture of Eastern European Jews. N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn is experimental in its use of collage, recalling moments in the works of William Faulkner, as well as the Kiowa oral tradition. Unit 14 also explores how these ethnic American writers won the attention of readers and critics beyond the reach of their own communities. What aspects of these works resonated for Americans living lives very different from the protagonists in these narratives? Unit 14 helps answer these questions by offering suggestions about how to connect these writers to other writers of the era, to their cultural context, and to other units in the series.

The video, the archive, and the curriculum materials situate writers of this generation with reference to several key issues of their day: (1) the rise of suburbs and the intensification of the conflict between individuality and conformity; (2) the migration to urban centers by ethnic minorities; (3) baseball as a symbol of national identity, and the consequent importance of desegregation in the sport; (4) anxiety over the threat of nuclear annihilation; (5) the plight of veterans returning to civilian life and seeking to be accepted as Americans, regardless of ethnicity; (6) the influence of jazz on American literature and style; and (7) the continuing impact of World War II on American social life.

The archive and curriculum materials suggest how students might connect the readings from this unit to those of other units in the series: How do the lives and work of Jewish American women differ from era to era? How does Ellison’s protagonist compare with Dave Saunders in Wright’s “The Man Who Was Almost a Man”? Similarly, students are encouraged to compare the rhetorical strategies used by Ellison and other African American writers of the 1950s and 1960s to those used by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs in Unit 7. Roth’s emphasis on combat experience and ethnicity in imagining American manhood is compared to the construction of American masculinity discussed in Unit 5. Unit 14 is also designed to get students thinking about postmodernism and post-World War II American culture, topics that will be explored in Units 15 and 16. Why were the writers discussed in Unit 14 sometimes attacked by members of their own ethnic groups? How do the writers discussed in Units 15 and 16 respond to similar attacks and accusations?

Learning Objectives

After students have viewed the video, read the headnotes and literary selections in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and explored related archival materials on the American Passages Web site, they should be able to

  1. see and discuss connections among Ralph Ellison’s enthusiasm for jazz, his deep experience in classic American and European literature, and his own style and experiments as a writer;
  2. hear and discuss the various ways in which these writers use American urban and ethnic dialects, speech patterns, and folkways in writing for a multiethnic audience;
  3. understand how traditional American themes (growing up, breaking away from established values, finding love, pursuing dreams) are addressed and transformed by each of these authors;
  4. understand how change in cultural and personal life is addressed in the work of several of these writers;
  5. appreciate the dynamics of assimilation and acculturation;
  6. define the “novel of identity” as a distinct literary genre and discuss how it relates to the broader tradition of the bildungsroman;
  7. identify hallmarks of modern and contemporary Native American, African American, and Jewish American literature.

Using the Video

Video Authors:
Ralph Ellison, Philip Roth, N. Scott Momaday

Who’s Interviewed:
Judith Baskin, professor of religious studies and director of the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies (University of Oregon); John Callahan, Ralph Ellison’s literary executor and Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities (Lewis and Clark College); Joy Harjo, poet/musician, professor of English (University of California, Los Angeles) (Muscogee/Creek); N. Scott Momaday, Pulitzer Prize-winning author; Greg Sarris, professor of English (Loyola Marymount University) (Miwok Chief/Pomo); Pancho Savery, professor of English (Reed College); Eric Sundquist, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of English (Northwestern University); Wendy Wasserstein, Tony Award, Dramatists Guild Award, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright

Points Covered:

  • The decades after World War II were a conflicting time, characterized by prosperity and conformity for some and rebellion for others. Mass consumption, a movement to the suburbs from the inner cities, and a fear of communism helped to stifle dissent. During the 1950s and 1960s mainstream literary and popular culture embraced some ethnic writers who achieved both commercial success and literary acclaim.
  • Writers Ralph Ellison, Philip Roth, and N. Scott Momaday grappled with issues of ethnicity and race and redefined what it meant to be American and part of the American literary canon. Each produced a novel of identity in which an existential hero goes on a journey of self-discovery. Widely appreciated for their universal appeal, these authors also tackled issues unique to their particular cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
  • Ellison’s Invisible Man sparked an ongoing debate about the obligations and consequences of a “black identity.”
  • Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint explores the anxieties and aspirations of Jewish Americans as they attempt to adapt to life among the gentiles.
  • N. Scott Momaday explores ethnic identity in House Made of Dawn. Influenced by the Native American oral tradition, Momaday’s experimental style juxtaposes three kinds of voices: mythic, historical, and personal.


  • Preview the video: In the 1950s and 1960s, ethnic writers moved onto the bestseller lists and achieved recognition in literary circles. Ralph Ellison, Philip Roth, and N. Scott Momaday showed how Americans once at the margins were now closer to the country’s cultural center. In doing so, all three writers expanded the boundaries of American literature and opened up the definition of what it is to be American. The video provides the backdrop for this era, as a post-World War II America began to enjoy a prosperity that led it toward conformity and mass consumption. However, the postwar economic boom and “white flight” to the suburbs increased the physical and class distance between the white middle class and ethnic minorities who remained in older neighborhoods closer to the city centers. Ellison, Roth, and Momaday helped to resist the imaginative segregation that accompanied these changes in the urban and suburban landscape. Ellison’s adaptations from jazz and blues, Roth’s ethnic comedic rifts, and Momaday’s ingenious use of Native American narrative traditions all helped to make storytelling richer and expanded readers’ awareness of where narrative art comes from and who is capable of creating it. The video also emphasizes the risk these authors took in their innovative approaches as representatives of their own communities, often facing fierce criticism and misunderstanding of their fiction and its intentions.
  • What to think about while watching: How do Ellison, Roth, and Momaday expand the definition of what it means to be American? What traditions influenced each of these writers? How do they respond to the social and political tensions of the time, such as the pressure to conform and the need for overall recognition of civil rights for minorities? What American icons do the authors invoke and redefine in their works?
  • Tying the video to the unit content: This unit focuses on “novels of identity” from the 1950s and 1960s, particularly those dealing with issues of ethnicity and race. In an era remembered now for conformity, but also for the cultural rebellions of the 1960s, these writers spoke both as individuals and as members of groups. In doing so, they exemplify a conflict between being American and being part of an ethnic community. Unit 14 provides background information that will help readers understand this literature. The Context “With Justice for All: From World War II to the Civil Rights Movement” provides a surprising picture of how ethnic minorities who had served their country well in war were subjected to hatred and racism upon their return to civilian life. In one sense, these citizens were assimilated into the dominant culture through their service during the war but then were expected to return to disenfranchised minority status after the war was over. Alternatively, Japanese Americans were detained and confined without representation during the war because of widespread fear about their loyalties. Major works exploring such themes include Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith,” N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. In the Context “Suburban Dreams: Levittown, New York” students learn how new suburban subdivisions intensified a pressure to assimilate and conform and eroded the sense of coherence and belonging that had been possible for many families when they lived in ethnic neighborhoods. Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and even Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman explore the suburban setting, while Bellow’s “Looking for Mr. Green” is set in the city. The Context “Living with the Atomic Bomb: Native Americans and the Postwar Uranium Boom and Nuclear Reactions” deals with Native Americans working in uranium mines and with the cultural paranoia of living with “the bomb” in the late 1950s and the 1960s. “Jazz Aesthetics” helps readers understand the influence of this music as it crossed over into other arts, such as writing and painting. Note the influences of jazz and the blues in Ellison’s Invisible Man and “Cadillac Flambé,” along with works by writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin. Finally, “Baseball: An American Pastime” discusses the influences of the “all-American” sport across the country, demonstrating how it reflected the ethnic and labor struggles that were occurring in the rest of American society. Note the use of baseball in the works of Ellison, Miller, Malamud, and Roth.

Suggested Author Pairings

Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow
Ellison and Bellow were friends, sharing a house in rural New England when they were aspiring writers. As artists they were highly suspicious of mass movements, of slogans, of attempts to reduce identity and political questions to simple terms. Both were college-educated and respectful of a literary tradition. In echoing and responding to that tradition as they developed contrarian voices, they received high praise but also resentment from other factions in the modern and contemporary arts. Their works, which are often considered to be early glimpses of postmodernism, might also be connected thematically and/or stylistically.

Philip Roth and Arthur Miller
Unlike Bellow and Malamud, these authors were drawn to the flashier circles of postwar American popular culture-Hollywood, the glamorous venues and residential districts of metropolitan New York, and other places where pop and literary life intersected. Though neither cultivated celebrity himself, both were connected for a time to high-profile actresses. Roth’s tumultuous relationship with Claire Bloom is recounted in her autobiography; in his play After the Fall, Miller told, in thinly fictionalized form, the story of his marriage to and breakup from the legendary Marilyn Monroe. Over the course of their careers, Roth and Miller have moved somewhat uneasily through many sites and varieties of American life-working-class neighborhoods, suburbs, old New England towns, and the sun-drenched boulevards of Los Angeles and the new American West.

Grace Paley, Bernard Malamud, and Paule Marshall
In the works of these three first-generation American writers, the challenge of becoming American in the years after World War II is intensified by special circumstances, one of which involves being a citizen of New York. The United States’s biggest and most powerful city figures significantly in their work: their characters cope with the turbulent action of the streets, the marginalization of the elderly in a fast-paced metropolis, the nurture and segregation of ethnic neighborhoods in outlying boroughs, and the complexities of being literary in a culture obsessed with celebrity. The Vietnam War, the civil rights struggles, and the rise of the American university as an employer of writers and an arbiter of taste are all rich topics for discussion in the context of these authors.

N. Scott Momaday and Richard Wright
Both of these authors write about young men propelled from the world they know into a violent modernity. Momaday’s best-known novel, House Made of Dawn, is about a Native American who cannot reconcile his Pueblo heritage with the horrors of war and the rootlessness of city life. Momaday’s other works attempt a spiritual homecoming-a rediscovery of spirit and consolation in the traditional landscapes of the Kiowa (Momaday’s nation) and other Native American peoples. Also a wanderer in his personal life, Richard Wright never goes home in his fiction or in his memoirs. In his novel Native Son, his autobiographical work Black Boy, and several of his short stories, a key theme is the protagonist’s puzzlement as he faces a bleak and menacing future. Like Momaday, Wright depicts both the mysteriousness and the violence of modern life for people who are hurled into it suddenly, without education, family support, or psychological readiness-and both do so as members of historically oppressed minority groups.


assimilation – Becoming part of the dominant culture and leaving behind characteristics and qualities that would designate one as different or “other.”

bildungsroman – A novel of formation or growth into maturity; a novel of education and an awakening from the innocence of youth.

Cold War – A period following World War II up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when communist and democratic countries vied for political control of and influence in the world. The period was marked by a nuclear arms race that guaranteed “mutual annihilation” if either side used its weapons of mass destruction.

conformity – Going along with the popular beliefs, trends, and attitudes of the dominant society of the time.

existentialist writing – Literature that embraces the view that the individual must create his or her own meaning in an unknowable, chaotic, and seemingly empty universe. French author Albert Camus proposes that in such a world, one may decide either that all efforts are futile or that the mere struggle to continue in such an absurd universe is an act of creation in itself.

improvisation – The act or art of composing and rendering music or poetry extemporaneously, in a unique or individual manner.

jazz – Music in which improvisation and soloing play an important part. There is tremendous variety in jazz, but most jazz is very rhythmic, has a forward momentum called “swing,” and uses “bent” or “blue” notes. You can often hear “call-and-response” patterns in jazz, in which one instrument, voice, or part of the band answers another.

McCarthyism – Related to the period during the Cold War during which Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee sought out American citizens who were suspected of being members or former members of, or sympathizers with, the communist party.

metafiction – Fiction that self-consciously refers to writing and its conventions.

naturalism – Late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century literary approach of French origin that realistically depicts social problems and views human beings as helpless victims of larger social and economic forces.

novel of identity – Novel that addresses the question of “who am I” and “how do I fit into the society around me.”

oral tradition – The passing on of oral culture, tradition, and history from one generation to the next, through stories told time and again. Oral tradition did not, and does not, cease to exist with the rise of literacy; it co-exists, especially in cultures that retain a strong sense of oral dissemination of information and culture.

postmodern literature – Literature that responds to, and is written in the context of, philosophical and socio-historical movements that challenge the progress-oriented master narratives of Enlightenment and positivist traditions. At the beginning of the twentieth century, linguists and philosophers questioned the possibility that language can truly reflect reality, or that any essential, categorical, or transcendental truth claims can be made about the world. From the unspeakable violence of the Holocaust, to the assertion of gender and other personal traits as being malleable and socially constructed, postmodernism has sought to explain the many uncertainties, ironies, contradictions, and multiple points of view that animate the world. Postmodern literature is often consciously self-reflexive, questioning the nature of the text and the authority and existence of the author, and uses techniques like pastiche, metanarrative, nonlinear constructions, absurdity, and irony. Postmodernism is at once a literary style, a critical and theoretical movement, and a description of the sociocultural world of globalized consumer capitalism.

Bibliography & Resources

Selected Bibliography
Adamson, Joni. American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism. Phoenix: U of Arizona P, 2001.

Boyer, Paul. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

Coontz, Stephanie. The Way We Never Were. New York: Basic Books, 1992.

Dear, I. C. B., ed. Oxford Companion to World War II. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. New York: Vintage, 1972.

Filreis, Alan. “Cultural Aspects of Atomic Anxiety.” dept.english. The Literature and Culture of the American 1950s [computer file and Web site]. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, Dept. of English, 1995.

Spanos, William V. The Errant Art of Moby-Dick: The Canon, the Cold War, and the Struggle for American Studies. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

UREO: Uranium and Radiation Education Outreach. Northern Arizona University.

“What Is Jazz?” Smithsonian Jazz-A Jazz Portal Intended to Pre-serve and Promote One of America’s Greatest Art Forms-Jazz.

Whitfield, Stephen J. The Culture of the Cold War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991.

Further Resources
The Atomic Café [documentary film]. Directed by Jayne Loader and Kevin Rafferty. 1982.

The Cold War: Europe and the Third World

. Produced by WGBH in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Santa Barbara: Intellimation, 1989.

Foertsch, Jacqueline. Enemies Within: The Cold War and the AIDS Crisis in Literature, Film, and Culture. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2001.

Frascina, Francis, ed. Pollock and After: The Critical Debate. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Guilbaut, Serge. How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, trans. Arthur Gold-hammer. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.

Momaday: Voice of the West

. KCTS Television. Produced and edited by Jean Walkinshaw. Alexandria: PBS Home Video, 1996.

A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution [online exhibit]; Fast Attacks and Boomers: Submarines in the Cold War [online exhibit]; Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s [online exhibit]; Produce for Victory: Posters on the American Home Front (1941-45) [online exhibit]. Smithsonian: National Museum of American History. National Mall, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC. Phone: (202) 357-2700.

Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson. Literature and Its Times. Detroit: Gale, 1997.

Ralph Ellison: The Self-Taught Writer. Produced, written, and directed by Rex Barnett. Atlanta: History on Video, 1995.

“The Real Thirteen Days: The Hidden History of the Cuban Missile Crisis.” The National Security Archive nsa/cuba_mis_cri/index.html. Digital National Security Archive Nearly 40,000 of the most important, declassified documents-totaling more than 250,000 pages-are included in the database. UMI.

A Walk Through the 20th Century with Bill Moyers: World War II: Propaganda Battle. Created and developed by the Corporation for Entertainment and Learning, Inc., and Bill Moyers; produced in association with WNET/New York and KQED/San Francisco. Washington, DC.: PBS Video, 1983, 1988.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6